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Beauty: A Death or Rebirth?

This article will consider the question, “Has beauty been eradicated by the machine?” New computer techniques have given rise to a new age in architectural design, but are architects prescribing their own extinction in pushing for such computer advancements?

The profession has almost mastered computer technology in terms of representation. Architects use Computer Aided Design (CAD) software to create drawings of the design they envision. But more recently, the computer is being used as a tool for the genesis of architecture, not merely its representation. Experimental forms can be generated, structurally tested, and prefabricated at an astonishingly efficient rate. Codes are being written into 3D software that can generate thousands of “parametric” design iterations that could never be done by a human. The excitement over this technology is perceivable in the swagger of young design professionals around the world. While even experts have not mastered their full potential, novel tools are opening new avenues in the industry. Zaha Hadid is at the forefront of this paradigm shift due to her success in implementing parametric form in built work. Her rendering for the Performing Arts Centre for Saadiyat Island in the United Arab Emirates is featured below.Zaha1.jpg

In “The Architecture of Happiness“, Alain de Botton poses the question, “How can anyone know what is attractive?” He argues that the creation of beauty, “Once viewed as the central task of the architect, has quietly evaporated from serious professional discussion and retreated to a confused private imperative”. He is referring to the rational justification necessary for any decision made by architects of the modern era. An architect during this period could not justify a window mullion because it was “beautiful”. Beauty was deemed a subjective quality and thus opposed to rational, pristine architecture of the early 1900’s.

Are designers in danger of losing their artistic identity among the prototypical iterations generated by the computer? Architecture is a balance between the conditions of the site context and the ideas generated by the individual. These ideas of the architect often operate in the realm of the subconscious. Does the brain perceive beauty? If so, is it universal or is it subjective and based on our experiences? A blog entry by Maria Lorena Lehman addresses the issue of neuroaesthetics. Lehman poses the question, “can beauty be universally understood?” She sites Seed Magazine, “An object’s beauty may not be universal, but the neural basis for appreciating beauty probably is”. While it is apparent that individuals may base the perception of beauty on their experiences, there is scientific evidence that the “location and dimensions of space will have profound implications for architecture”. Lehman postulates that one day architects might be able to create architecture based on the knowledge of which neurons will fire, resulting in specific reactions. Architecture might take on a calculated beauty.

The most recent developments in architecture technology feature the theme of observing nature to generate structure and forms. The cell structure of soap bubbles was translated into the enclosure of the Water Cube at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. A nest of twigs inspired the structural columns in the Bird’s Nest in Beijing. Architects are taking the beauty that is seemingly intrinsic in nature and examining its architectural potential.

This practice of looking at nature to derive form is not new to architects. The famous Catalan Spanish architect, Antoni Gaudi began observing nature to generate architectural forms in the late 19th century. The spires of his famous Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona were derived from the natural curvature he found when observing the parabola made by a hanging string model. Another Spanish architect, Santiago Calatrava (below) also achieves natural forms (taken from bone structures) in his feats of architecture and engineering. Some may say that architecture simply looks at nature to generate efficient structures, but is there more than meets the eye? There is something aesthetically pleasing about the organizing systems of nature. As the computer allows us to mimic the beauty found in nature, it is not only preserving notions of beauty, it is literally generating it.
calatrava.jpg

Yael Reisner interviews architects such as Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne, Peter Cook, and Zaha Hadid in her book “Architecture and Beauty: Conversations with architects about a troubled relationship”. Their insight on the relevance of beauty in the 21st century design process was discussed at the “Architecture and Beauty Symposium” at the Southern California Institute of Architecture on Sept. 15th. Frank Gehry (whose design process is revealed in his documentary “Sketches of Frank Gehry“) was the first to speak on the topic of self-expression. He stated that if he delivered anything other than his intuitive perspective on beauty, he would be “Talking down to a client”. His process of conceiving architecture begins with his mangled sketch, and then takes the form of a crumpled paper model. Once the model is deemed pleasing to Gehry, it is generated in the computer, with each crease, curve, and fold being precisely calculated with his specially adapted software, Catia. Gehry argues that despite advancements in the computer realm, “you can never remove the self” from the design. There is always the architect who decides which ideas are kept and which are dismissed. The general consensus from the panelists being interviewed was that although new techniques may revolutionize the design process, the ultimate decider will always be the architect. At the very heart of the architect’s design is an aesthetic decision and this can never be replaced.

My own explorations into the world of parametric architecture have yielded similar conclusions. Despite my initial fears that the computer might replace the architect’s aesthetic for beauty, I soon realized that the computer is merely a tool that we implement, a means to an end that we determine as well. This conclusion provides more than the assurance of job security for future architects. It emancipates the designer from the shackles imposed by the strict rules of rationality and opens the door to a new generation of design techniques.

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